[ a short story by M Wilson ]
“But I thought you said that you weren’t the Paperboy anymore?”
“I’m not, man. Not since two days ago anyway.”
“And plus, it’s a new month. So, how we gonna get money from your old customer’s, for next month, if you ain’t the Paperboy no more?” His friend pleaded. “Aw, it don’t matter anyway. You ain’t gonna really do it.”
Mark frowned, both at his accomplices’ lack of faith, and the fact that he was trying not to step on a small semi-circular pile of broken rocks in his path. Looks like some kids had made a Rock-Fort right smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk – stupid. As his frown soured, he kicked the rocks away, and immediately heard a child moan in despair; “Hey, whatchu do that for?!”
"First of all", he continued, turning his gaze from the disgruntled child, who was now racing toward the pile with what looked to be small sticks in his hands, surely the Fort’s walls –
"We, ain’t gettin’ nuthin’, I am. And besides, they don’t know I’m not the Paperboy anymore. Well, I may have told one or two of ‘em…"
“OK, so how you gonna get money from them for next month? It’s only the 3rd.” Said Kevin, who was clearly and utterly confused.
“Aw, just leave it up to me,” Mark said, waiving his hand dismissively at the youth. “It’s my hustle anyway!”
As the two boys rounded the corner they were met by a large group of kids, bookbags in tow, who were cheerfully headed-off to school and commandeering the sidewalk by virtue of sheer numbers. Forced to abandon the sidewalk and hug the curb, so as not to be run over by either the gang of kids or passing cars, the boys were suddenly (blissfully) aware that they were ‘skipping’ school today. Who needs teachers and classwork and study, when all they needed was a beautiful day, like today, and a plan.
“There’s one of my old-customer’s their, on the corner.” He now turned to squarely-face the boy, sporting a sly grin. “So, you Dare me?!” he nodded sharply with challenge, head slightly tilted and raised.
* * *
Ding-dong! Ding-dong! “Just a minute, please!”
After some muffled shuffling, the door opens to a middle-aged woman who was clearly in the throes of getting ready for work. At first Mark thought something was wrong with her, and almost abandoned the ruse out of sympathy. He then realized that her continuous blinking was somehow due to the mascara she had been applying, and not some abnormality of the eye.
“Can I help you?” She blinked, clearly confused and rushed.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Mark respectfully, began. “I’m with the ‘News American’ and I usually…”
“The Paperboy? But it’s Friday morning, aren’t you supposed to be in school? What time is it? Oh my God is it Saturday? Did the clocks go back, or up…”
“No, Ma’am, it’s Friday, I mean the time hasn’t changed. ‘least I don’t think…”
Turning toward an oval mirror on the wall that was just inside the doorway and placed above a shelf overflowing with all sorts of items, the woman seemed to will her left eye as wide open as possible, as she continued to apply her mascara and converse with him.
“Oh, Thank God! I did that last year. Totally late for work because of the stupid Time-Change, thing. Ugh!” A final few blinks and she turns to Mark as if she’d forgotten he were there, and with a puzzled look, she continued; “So what was it you were here for again? Are you here to collect for the Newspaper?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Mark chimed – this would be easier than he thought.
“Oh okay, well… my husband usually handles this stuff, but… how much do we owe? Is it for the whole month?” She asked, all the while reaching for her purse, and wallet within.
"It’s $6 for the month. Like I was saying I’m a little early this month, because my family and I are going on Spring Vacation at the end of the month, so…"
”Six Dollars?” she repeated, rifling through her purse to find the exact amount. “I’ve only got a ten. Do you have change for a ten-dollar bill, young man? Never mind, just keep the change. I’m sure you’re a good boy and a hard worker, since you’re here before school and all.”
“Yes, Ma’am! Thank you Ma’am!” Mark said, grinning and extending his hand to receive the money.
“You are Very Welcome! Now hurry off to school before you’re late.” She said, closing the door.
Mark was beaming with pride, and couldn’t walk fast enough around the corner where Kevin was waiting, all the while clutching the ten-dollar bill in his hand and grinning from ear-to-ear!
Seeing Mark’s hurried and grinning approach, Kevin began to walk toward his friend as a smile opened on his world as well. “Well? Did it work?!” He asked.
Mark raised the bill to his chest and triumphantly declared; “Like a Champ!”
* * *
Mark had only begun to realize the ruse the night before, as he lay in his bed and thought about what to do the next day – Friday. First of all, he knew he didn’t want to go to school. It was Spring in Baltimore, and the days were getting longer and warmer. But what to do with a whole day? He knew he needed money for weed, if nothing else; but how? The only Legit thing he knew to do was shoveling snow or cutting lawns. Since it was April now, the last snow had disappeared some time ago, and the grass hadn’t quite taken-off for the Summer yet, so it wasn’t in need of its first cutting.
And then there was the paperboy gig, but he told his district distributer that he didn’t want the job any longer. The hours, he said, interfered with his schoolwork. So, March was his last official month. The truth was that it was totally not worth the hassle – He would make 10% of the total money he collected, all for hours of backbreaking work every morning and evening. Weekends were the worst! No sleeping-in, he would wake at around 5:30 am to collect the papers and individually roll and band them for distribution. He would begin around 6 am and throw his last paper some 2 ½ hours later. On a few occasions, he would only deliver half of them and on a rarer few, none at all. This happened just this week, actually.
It was Monday, March 30, and as he knew he would soon no longer be responsible for paper deliveries, he decided to quit a day (or two) early. That was the day he decided he would stop delivering newspapers. Just like that. No worries. At fourteen years of age, he couldn’t quite understand why his distributor would be so upset over him missing one-day’s delivery. He informed him that he wasn’t feeling well and that he tried to call him but the line was busy. Over and over he pleaded with the boy to tell him what he had done with the papers that he didn’t deliver. Mark insisted that since he was sick and bedridden, someone must have stolen the bundle of newspapers from his front lawn, where they were dropped-off daily by the distributor.
It wasn’t until his parents arrived home for the evening that he realized the importance of the day. Why the distributor had been so livid and questioning, and why so many of his customers had called him asking for the Evening Addition of the Baltimore News American – It seems that on Monday, March 30th of 1981 at 2:27 pm, US President Ronald Reagan was shot (along with several of his aids and Secret Service members), while he was entering his limousine after a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
This meant, that some 35 (now Historical) Newspapers headlining the attempted assassination of a sitting American President were all placed in a dumpster, behind a supermarket, of a strip-mall, in Northeast Baltimore. Mark had never even noticed the bold headline: REAGAN SHOT! President Reagan went on to recover, of course, and left the hospital 2 weeks later. The Baltimore News American Newspaper, however, would not fare as well; founded in 1773 as the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, it had existed in some form of journalistic print for over 200 years to that point. One of the oldest Newspapers in the Nation, it would cease publication some two years later, in 1986.
* * *
Now that the concept had been proven to work (and on its very first attempt, at that!) the boy and his now gratefully amused cohort, proceeded to apply the scam to all of Mark’s ‘previous’ customers. One-by-one, Mark walked his collection beat as he had done many months before. Armed with his well-worn, chunky two-ringed binder of card-stock customer invoices, he meticulously solicited customers based on a linear proximity map. All the while, keeping in mind the goal. To purchase enough weed to sell and smoke for the weekend!
As he collected more and more money, Mark reminded himself that he (and other ‘Newsies’, newspaper delivery boys) would normally only keep a pittance of the total monthly take. The Newspaper Entity themselves, he imagined even as a youth, should get the Lion’s share, then the Distributors, and their sub-distributors, and then him; the Newsie. So the fact that he would get it all, made it that much more Grand a Hustle! He had no precedent of emotion to describe how it felt to ‘hustle’ adults as a 14 year old kid, he imagined he was setting those now. Tales to recount later, he thought.
They (or rather, Mark) took in $122, including tips, in a little under 3 hours. Given that the National Minimum-Wage at the time was $3.35/hour, it was a pretty successful morning for the 14 year old. Since it was practically Noon and lunchtime, they headed for the local Pizza-joint for a ‘slice’ and a soda (Mark’s treat), before catching the bus to the East-Side to purchase an ounce (an ‘O’) of marijuana. Nothing unusual here, just two young teens, copping some weed to sell on the streets of Baltimore. It literally, happened all the time. But this would be Mark’s first attempt at selling weed. He had taken his first hit from a joint at 12, and was getting full-blown ‘stoned’ at 13. Now, at 14, he was ready to take it a step further. Things moved fast in Baltimore in the 1980's as they did all over the Country; Everyone was looking for things to happen ‘in-a-New York-second!’, even off-Broadway as it were.
After Lunch, Mark stopped-by a phone booth to call ahead to his friend, Penny. He knew she would be able to get him some weight, and on short-notice. Penny lived on 33rd street on Baltimore's East-Side, not far from his Grandmother’s on 25th , and his cousins on Tivoly Ave., all right in the heart of his youthful territory. He knew people in East-Baltimore, which made it both comforting and dangerous. Can’t get complacent in the City. Folks, even kids, would eat you alive. He always kept this in mind, even as a youth; especially as a youth. Predators seek out the weak, the old and sadly the young.
So, after disappointing his back-alley salesman by bringing a hand-held scale (Kevin, trying to earn his keep) that read less than an ounce no matter who held it, Mark was satisfied when the dealer returned with another ‘ounce’ of weed. This time the scale read proper, and the boys were off to Penny’s place to get high.
After dropping a little weed on her for the hook-up, and getting some fresh nickel and dime bags (she and her people often sold as well, and had fresh stacks of crisp hand-sized manila envelopes used to hold and sell weed on the street at the time), the two were off again to Northeast Baltimore, to bag and sell. But not on the streets, that’s not how it worked there. You needed a proper place to do business. You needed a, Stage.
And what better place than school? If they could get back to school (N. Parkway Junior-High) before it let out for the day, they could secure the business from all the kids looking to cop for the weekend! It was brilliant, and Mark needed only to get it bagged and ready for them. All he needed was a little, time.
“We gonna go to your place and bag it up there?” Kevin asked, as the bus approached their stop and the two youths stood and made their way to the back exit.
“Naw,” said Mark. “I’ve got a better idea.”
As the two exited the bus, Mark jumped from the last step a little heavy, and felt the plastic baggie full of marijuana almost fall from his inner-waistband (where he had stashed it earlier) and was headed down the leg of his pants. He caught it by grabbing his crotch just as it arrived. He felt the vacuumed swoosh of the closing folding-doors of the Bus at his back now, as it angrily roared-off.
“Shit, the bag almost fell out!” Mark exclaimed as he reached conspicuously into his crotch to adjust the package. Bristling with small sticks, the bag was a little uncomfortable, as it poked his bare young flesh. But, sticks or not it would sell. He just had to get it bagged and ready. With this sole thought in tow, the two headed for school. Ironic that they should be going to school after committing to cutting for the day. But they only had about an hour or so before school would let out and the kids would pile outside and head for the bus stops to get back to the inner-city where they were all from.
Mark always wondered that if the inner-city kids were bussed to the suburbs for school, who went to the schools in the inner-city? Not the suburban kids, because they went to school’s that were even further out. Interesting, he thought. It must have been a lot of kids in Baltimore.
* * *
“So, how we gonna do this?” Kevin asked as the two climbed through a narrow ground-level window, and into the boy’s locker room.
“Well,” began Mark – I need to get this shit bagged-up so we can sell it to these kids before they get back to the East-Side. So I need a little time to myself.”
His first thought was to head to a bathroom on the third floor maybe. The floors of the school would separate and denote the grade-levels of the students; where 7th grader’s occupied the ground floor, 8th grader’s the 2nd, and 9th grader’s the 3rd. Mark was a ninth grader, so he was familiar and comfortable with the third floor, but given that he had cut for the day, it probably wouldn’t be best to head up there. And since he and Kevin would definitely stand-out on the other levels (Kevin was at least 2 years Mark’s senior), he thought it best to stay in the ‘common-area’ that was the gymnasium and locker-room.
Straddling one of the benches (that was directly in-front of the single door to the small, hormone-laden’ subterranean chamber), the enterprising youth began to deftly lay-out the marijuana and packaging-materials in the narrow, musty aisle.
He instructed the older boy to stand directly outside of the door (the only access in or out) and keep watch. If anyone (read; any adult) were to approach him, or try to enter the room, he would knock (inconspicuously, of course) 3-times on the door, and attempt to block their entry, while he would stash the weed in one of the lockers, and/or make his escape through the same window that they had entered. If this were to happen, they would meet up at his house, a mere 6 blocks away. Brilliant! What could go wrong? He had the whole thing figured-out.
As Mark bagged the weed, kids would walk by the aisle, or enter it to use the locker’s. As they did, he would ask them each in-turn, if they needed any weed. He actually made 2 sales while bagging - Outstanding! he thought.
It had been about 30 minutes or so, Mark had just finished and was counting (for the second time) all the product when he heard the knocks. Three in rapid succession, but he had no time to gather all the bags when at once, the door flew open and Kevin was yelling with a wide-eyed grin on his face (Mark never understood the boy’s expression; was it nervous angst, or commission of guilt? You just couldn’t trust, bad guys) “Yo! Somebody snitched!” and just like that he disappeared to the left and out of view. In his place, however, stood a one Paul Johnston; Off-Duty Metro officer and part-time School Security Guard.
“What the F--- are you doing?!” exclaimed the Officer as he closed the distance between himself and Mark, hovering his hand above the .38 caliber firearm that was holstered on his hip. “You selling Weed in here? Your little a-- is Done!”
And just like that, cornered by an off-duty Baltimore City Police Officer, at 14, and with two ounces of marijuana bagged and ready for sale in a School-Zone, and with seemingly no escape, it looked as if Mark (and his Grand-Scheme) were indeed done.
[ 2:45pm | The Escape ]
“Look, I know the weed wasn’t yours, I know it belonged to that other Kid. He was older and I know he wasn’t from this School. He made you bag-up that weed, so Y’all could sell it, huh? Go ahead and tell me the truth Boy, you caught now, no escaping this. Just tell me who the other boy was, and when the Police come, I’ll tell them that it wasn’t your fault. It was the other kid, right? What was his name?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking ‘bout, Bro'. I ain’t see no other kids, and I wasn’t with no other kids. It’s just me.” Marked smirked.
At this, the Officer paused and sat back in his seat. Looking into Mark’s eyes, intent on making him crack. He then leaned forward again while placing his hands slowly on the desk in the non-descript office (an old Janitor’s closet, Mark assumed) where he had taken him to await the arrival of his ‘Boys-in-Blue’ from the BPD, and informed the youth that he had mere ‘minutes’ to tell him the truth, or his world would be over; suspension from school, incarceration, failed life. He was sure that he was on to a larger bust here.
There was no way this skinny little kid was gonna fool him into thinking that this was all his idea – No way! He had to get him to talk, to give up the bigger teen who was undoubtedly working for the street gangs and recruiting this boy to do their dirty-work. The kid in front of him now couldn’t have been any older than 13, but could be worth a significant bust if he could get him to cooperate.
“Look Man,” he began his ‘Good-Cop’ speak – “The Police are on their way to lock you up. Your boy’s can’t help you now. But I can, if you just tell me who the other kid was, that way when they ask me how you helped…”
“So you mean if I tell you who the other guy was, that I can go? Before the cops come and my parents are notified? Is that true?
Deep breath, pause – “Yeah, that’s right. It’ll all be ok if you just tell me who’s in charge. Okay?”
Mark thought about this for a second, he really did. Was he telling the truth, this Cop? Could he somehow get out of this without getting into trouble? Hell No! This dude was full of shit!
“Okay, so, I think his name was; Frank (putting his hand to his forehead, as in deep contemplation and leaning forward onto the desk in front of him), F--K-YOU VERY MUCH!” At this, he snatched the weed (which had all been put together in a large clear plastic ‘evidence bag’ and placed by the Officer triumphantly on the desk between them), and in one deft-motion, rose and turned from the desk in front of him to swiftly (as only a 14 year-old boy could) exit the room and sprint down the now empty hallway toward the institution’s front door, and out into the bright-blue freedom that lay beyond!
In his rear, he could make out the rumblings of a '40-something' year-old man, as he attempted to first hurdle, than squeeze around the desk that separated the two nemesis.
“Shit!” he thought, “Little Prick! “You’re still Suspended from School, you little F---r!” he yelled after the Boy. “You can’t run from that! You hear me? You can’t escape that!”
The fainter the voice grew, the broader Mark’s smile as he raced toward his house to meet Kevin.
Stay Tuned for Episode 2: The Fugitive!
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